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The Sundance film festival usually uncovers plenty of incredible stories during its much hyped run every year. Some receive a mountain of press coverage even before they’ve made their debut at the festival, while others come so far out of left field they take the whole world by surprise. 2003 was the perfect example, showcasing everything from the oddball world of Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, to the essence of romance with All The Real Girls and Dopamine, to the powerful documentaries Capturing The Friedmans and Stevie.

But it was Catherine Hardwicke’s directorial debut which created a stir among a different crowd. Thirteen was a teen film that dealt with more than just sex and prom night, some declaring it a wake up call for ignorant parents everywhere. This definitely wasn’t your usual high-brow hit for a festival such as Sundance, but it ended up becoming just as highly acclaimed. Why, I’m not so sure.

Despite many lauding the film for its confronting nature and handling of key issues surrounding young girls, there’s really very little that hasn’t been tackled, albeit a little more tamely, in your average Degrassi Junior High or Neighbours episode. Mother/daughter relationships, sex, drugs, peer pressure, alcoholism, self-mutilation and general teen angst are thrown together in one big ball of emotion by Catherine Hardwicke, who co-wrote the script with young star of the film Nikki Reed. More accustomed to production design (where she plied her trade in some noteworthy smaller films such as Laurel Canyon and 2 Days In The Valley), Hardwicke has managed to give us something that’s definitely been covered before but packages it with a slick look and feel uncharacteristic of a first time director.

The antagonist of the film is thirteen year-old Tracy Freeland (Evan Rachel Wood), an intelligent and well-mannered teenager who is just beginning to show some signs of tension in her life. Tracy’s relationship with her mother (Holly Hunter) becomes increasingly strained due to the arrival of her new boyfriend, while her school life enters an exciting new phase when she meets Evie, a rather rebellious and carefree young girl with a lot to teach an impressionable mind such as Tracy’s. The pair soon become particularly close and delve into the more risqué pastimes for teenage girls; they get drunk and beat the living hell out of each other for fun (the opening scene in the film), turn their hands to shoplifting and mess around with a couple of willing young men.

The transformation of Tracy becomes the main focus of the film. Her character arc is quite pronounced, going from a sweet young girl and moving headlong towards a bratty troublemaker with a large chip on her shoulder, partly due to the influence of Evie and the strained relationship she has with her mother. The interaction between the three leads is interesting to watch as we see the changes unfold and head predictably into very emotional territory.

Kudos must be given to Evan Rachel Wood, of TV’s Once and Again fame, who gives her best performance to date as Tracy. Described as the next Diane Lane and not without similarities to the accomplished actress, Wood will surely be firmly planted on the big screen for many years to come. She manages to give a certain subtlety to a character with two distinct personas, never steering towards B-movie stereotypes along the way. Holly Hunter may well be the best sounding board she could have had, but Wood accomplished her Golden Globe-nominated turn all on her own. Hunter’s no donkey in this film, either. With the tough job of looking like the villain but trying to be the worried parent, she excels and full deserves her Oscar nod among a field of impressive actresses. The final part of a magnificent trio is Nikki Reed, mature beyond her years and a great contrast to the perceived innocence of Wood. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here without the luxury of writing a part for herself.

The critical recognition the film received may be surprising to some, but it’s probably because the presentation is so natural and slickly constructed you can’t help feeling there’s a lot more to the story than there really is. Catherine Hardwicke’s direction is superb, bringing out the best in all three lead female roles and at the same time ensuring things don’t become melodramatic. The issues tackled are real and are portrayed in a realistic environment, though one doubts whether they’re really as powerful as some have described them. Sure, there’s plenty to like about the film and you can’t go past the incredible performances, but the story just isn’t as cutting edge as many might have hoped for. Throwing every teen-angst problem in a melting pot might just have affected the focus of the film a little, which is why impact is possibly lessened. Still, for any thirteen year-old girl or concerned parent, there’s a lot to like about the content.

The 1.85:1 presentation throws up a bit of a mixed bag in terms of visual styles, with Catherine Hardwicke using the cinematography to chart the journey of Tracy and her relationships with others. The opening act is pretty stock-standard, with a great looking colour palette and an overall sharpness without flaw. As the film progresses the colours are increasingly ramped up and exposed, testing out the visuals with some tougher scenarios. Thankfully it pulls through admirably, with only a hint of aliasing at various stages and no signs of anything wrong with the print itself. Overall, a solid transfer.

While Thirteen is definitely not the flick to show off your latest HT setup, what is included is a neat little Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that does the job quite well. Surround use is pretty much reserved for ambient sounds and the music, consisting mainly of your typical teen angst rock tracks among others. Dialogue sits firmly in the front channels, though some attempts have been made to shift it around the left, center and right channels throughout. There’s very little else to report, but there’s definitely nothing inherently wrong with the mix.

The retail release of the film comes with a smattering of extras which do add some value to the disc overall. First up is a commentary track with Catherine Hardwicke, Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed and Brady Corbet, who plays Tracy’s brother, Mason. Corbet has little to say but the three women have a blast recounting all the stories from the shoot. Hardwicke delves into the technical aspects, occasionally creeping a little too close to the “congratulatory” phase where she pats her whole cast and crew on the back, but on the whole her insights are quite interesting. Wood and Reed contrast Hardwicke’s input by giggling at some of the images on screen as well as recalling how difficult the shoot was being minors. Overall this is a great little track, which fans of the film will enjoy immensely.

Next up is The Making of Thirteen, a promotional fluff piece produced to be shown before one sees the film, apparently. Running for just over six minutes, there’s little to like about this featurette. If you like extended trailers then go right ahead and take a look. If not then there’s no value in watching this one.

Finally, the deleted scenes package contains ten deleted scene with optional commentary from director Catherine Hardwicke. There are some interesting scenes included here, including Tracy’s frustration at having to baby-sit her little sister, an appearance from Tracy’s father and an extended shopping scene where the girls smoke like a chimney, which is partly why the scene was cut from the final film. None of the scenes are all that long yet are a worthy addition to the disc.

Had it not been for the commentary and deleted scenes the extras section would have been a major disappointment. As it stands there is some value in the supplements but not enough to make the disc really stand out. Fans of the film will enjoy hearing from the cast and Catherine Hardwicke as well as watching the scene that didn’t make the cut, but there’s nothing else to add any value to the disc.

Thanks largely to the performances of the three female leads, Thirteen hits the right cords without ever moving into really outstanding territory, despite what a large number of critics have suggested. Slickly produced, directed and photographed, the film possibly looks a lot more effective than it really is, though it’s still a solid film nonetheless. The video and audio presentations are adequate, while the extras section contains a valuable commentary and deleted scenes package. You should think about picking this one up, though make sure it’s at the right price.